Perseid meteor shower peaks in planet-rich sky
The persistent twilight that has swamped Scotland’s night sky since May is subsiding in time for us to appreciate four bright evening planets and arguably the best meteor shower of the year.
The Perseid shower returns every year between 23 July and 20 August as the Earth cuts through the stream of meteoroids that orbit the Sun along the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. As they rush into the Earth’s atmosphere at 59 km per second, they disintegrate in a swift streak of light with the brighter ones often laying down a glowing train that may take a couple of seconds or more to dissipate.
The shower is due to peak in the early hours of the 13th at around 02:00 BST with rates in excess of 80 meteors per hour for an observer under ideal conditions – under a moonless dark sky with the shower’s radiant point, the place from which the meteors appear to diverge, directly overhead. We should lower our expectations, however, for although moonlight is not a problem this year, most of us contend with light pollution and the radiant does not stand overhead.
Even so, observable rates of 20-40 per hour make for an impressive display and, unlike for the rival Geminid shower in December, we don’t have to freeze for the privilege. Indeed, some people enjoy group meteor parties, with would-be observers reclining to observe different parts of the sky and calling out “meteor!” each time they spot one. Target the night of 12th-13th for any party, though rates may still be respectable between the 9th and 15th.
The shower takes its name from the fact that its radiant point lies in the northern part of the constellation Perseus, see the north map, and climbs from about 30° high in the north-north-east as darkness falls to very high in the east before dawn. Note that Perseids fly in all parts of the sky – it is just their paths that point back to the radiant.
Records of the shower date back to China in AD 36 and it is sometimes called the Tears of St Lawrence after the saint who was martyred on 10 August AD 258, though it seems this title only dates from the nineteenth century.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change this month from 05:17/21:20 BST on the 1st to 06:15/20:10 on the 31st. The Moon is at last quarter on the 4th, new on the 11th, at first quarter on the 18th and full on the 26th.
A partial solar eclipse on the 11th is visible from the Arctic, Greenland, Scandinavia and north-eastern Asia. Observers in Scotland north of a line from North Uist to the Cromarty Firth see a thin sliver of the Sun hidden for just a few minutes at about 09:45 BST. Our best place to be is Shetland but even in Lerwick the eclipse lasts for only 43 minutes with less than 2% of the Sun’s disk hidden at 09:50. To prevent serious eye damage, never look directly at the Sun.
Vega in Lyra is the brightest star overhead at nightfall and marks the upper right corner of the Summer Triangle it forms with Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila. Now that the worst of the summer twilight is behind us, we have a chance to glimpse the Milky Way as it flows through the Triangle on its way from Sagittarius in the south to Auriga and the star Capella low in the north. Other stars of note include Arcturus in Bootes, the brightest star in our summer sky, which is sinking in the west at the map times as the Square of Pegasus climbs in the east.
Of the quartet of planets in our evening sky, two have already set by our map times. The first and brightest of these is Venus which stands only 9° high in the west at Edinburgh’s sunset on the 1st and sets itself 68 minutes later. By the 31st, these numbers change to 4° and 35 minutes, so despite its brilliance at magnitude -4.2 to -4.4, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot as an evening star. It is furthest east of the Sun (46°) on the 17th.
Jupiter remains conspicuous about 10° high in the south-west as darkness falls and sets in the west-south-west just before the map times. Edging eastwards in Libra, it dims slightly from magnitude -2.1 to -1.9 and slips 0.6° north of the double star Zubenelgenubi on the 15th. A telescope shows it to be 36 arcseconds wide when it lies below-right of the Moon on the 17th.
The two planets low in the south at our map times are Mars, hanging like a prominent orange beacon only some 7° high in south-western Capricornus, and Saturn which is a shade higher above the Teapot of Sagittarius almost 30° to Mars’ right. Mars stood at opposition on 27 July and is at its closest to the Earth (57.6 million km) four days later. A planet-wide dust storm has hidden much of the surface detail on its small disk which shrinks during August from 24 to 21 arcseconds as its distance increases to 67 million km. Although Mars dims from magnitude -2.8 to -2.1, so it remains second only to Venus in brilliance. Catch the Moon near Saturn on the 20th and 21st and above Mars on the 24th.
Finally, we cannot overlook Mercury which is a morning star later in the period. Between the 22nd and 31st, it brightens from magnitude 0.8 to -0.7, rises more than 90 minutes before the Sun and stands around 7° high in the east-north-east forty minutes before sunrise. It is furthest west of the Sun (18°) on the 26th.
Diary for 2018 August
Times are BST
4th 19h Last quarter
9th 01h Mercury in inferior conjunction on Sun’s near side
11th 11h New moon and partial solar eclipse
13th 02h Peak of Perseids meteor shower
14th 15h Moon 6° N of Venus
17th 12h Moon 5° N of Jupiter
17th 19h Venus furthest E of Sun (46°)
18th 09h First quarter
21st 11h Moon 2.1° N of Saturn
23rd 18h Moon 7° N of Mars
26th 13h Full moon
26th 22h Mercury furthest W of Sun (18°)
28th 11h Mars stationary (motion reverses from W to E)
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on July 31st 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Countdown to the Great American Eclipse
With two eclipses and a major meteor display, August is 2017’s most interesting month for sky-watchers. Admittedly, Scotland is on the fringe of visibility for both eclipses while the annual Perseids meteor shower suffers moonlight interference.
The undoubted highlight is the so-called Great American Eclipse on the 21st. This eclipse of the Sun is total along a path, no more than 115km wide, that sweeps across the USA from Oregon at 18:17 BST (10:17 PDT) to South Carolina at 19:48 BST (14:48 EDT) – the first such coast-to-coast eclipse for 99 years.
Totality is visible only from within this path as the Moon hides completely the dazzling solar surface, allowing ruddy flame-like prominences to be glimpsed at the solar limb and the pearly corona, the Sun’s outer atmosphere, to be admired at it reaches out into space. At its longest, though, totality lasts for only 2 minutes and 40 seconds so many of those people fiddling with their gadgets to take selfies and the like may be in danger of missing the spectacle altogether.
The surrounding area from which a partial eclipse is visible even extends as far as Scotland. From Edinburgh, this lasts from 19:38 to 20:18 BST but, at most, only the lower 2% of the Sun is hidden at 19:58 as it hangs a mere 4° high in the west. Need I add that the danger of eye damage means that we must never look directly at the Sun – instead project the Sun through a pinhole, binoculars or a small ‘scope, or use an appropriate filter or “eclipse glasses”.
A partial lunar eclipse occurs over the Indian Ocean on the 7th as the southern quarter of the Moon passes through the edge of the Earth’s central dark umbral shadow between 18:23 and 20:18 BST. By the time the Moon rises for Edinburgh at 20:57, it is on its way to leaving the lighter penumbral shadow and I doubt whether we will see any dimming, It exits the penumbra at 21:51.
Our charts show the two halves of the sky around midnight at present. In the north-west is the familiar shape of the Plough while the bright stars Deneb in Cygnus and Vega in Lyra lie to the south-east and south-west of the zenith respectively. These, together with Altair in Aquila in the middle of our southern sky, make up the Summer Triangle. The Milky Way flows through the Triangle as it arches overhead from the south-west to the north-east where Capella in Auriga rivals Vega in brightness.
Of course, many of us have to contend with light pollution which swamps all trace of the Milky Way and we are not helped by moonlight which peaks when the Moon is full on the 7th and only subsides as last quarter approaches on the 15th. New moon comes on the 21st and first quarter on the 29th. The Sun, meantime, slips another 8° southwards during the month as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 05:17/21:20 BST on the 1st to 06:15/20:09 on the 31st.
Meteors of the annual Perseids shower, the tears of St Lawrence, are already arriving in low numbers. They stream away from a radiant point in the northern Perseus which stands in the north-east at our map times, between Capella and the W-pattern of Cassiopeia. We spot Perseids in all parts of the sky, though, and not just around Perseus.
Meteor numbers are expected to swell to a peak on the evening of the 12th when upwards of 80 per hour might be counted under ideal conditions. Even though moonlight will depress the numbers seen this time, we can expect the brighter ones still to impress as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere at 59 km per second, many leaving glowing trains in their wake. The meteoroids concerned come from Comet Swift-Tuttle which last approached the Sun in 1992.
Although Neptune is dimly visible through binoculars at magnitude 7.8 some 2° east of the star Lambda Aquarii, the only naked-eye planet at our map times is Saturn. The latter shines at magnitude 0.3 to 0.4 low down in the south-west as it sinks to set less than two hours later. It is a little higher towards the south at nightfall, though, where it lies below-left of the Moon on the 2nd when a telescope shows its disk to be 18 arcseconds wide and its stunning wide-open rings to span 40 arcseconds. Saturn is near the Moon again on the 29th.
Jupiter is bright (magnitude -1.9 to -1.7) but very low in our western evening sky, its altitude one hour after sunset sinking from 6° on the 1st to only 1° by the month’s end as it disappears into the twilight. Catch it just below and right of the young Moon on the 25th.
Venus is brilliant at magnitude -4.0 in the east before dawn. Rising in the north-east a little after 02:00 BST at present, and an hour later by the 31st, it climbs to stand 25° high at sunrise. Viewed through a telescope, its disk shrinks from 15 to 12 arcseconds in diameter as it recedes from 172 million to 200 million km and its gibbous phase changes from 74% to 83% sunlit.
As Venus tracks eastwards through Gemini, it passes below-right of the star cluster M35 (use binoculars) on the 2nd and 3rd, stands above-left of the waning earthlit Moon on the 19th and around 10° below Castor and Pollux as it enters Cancer a few days later. On the 31st it stands 2° to the right of another cluster, M44, which is also known as Praesepe or the Beehive.